Last month’s Entertainment Expo (E3) is best reported on by telling the tale of the three major game console platforms (Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Kinect, Sony’s PS3, and Nintendo’s Wii U), since they drive just about everything else in the world of console gaming as it impacts the world of the residential home entertainment designer/installer.
Without question, the most anticipated new product at E3 was Nintendo’s next generation of home console system, Wii U. Much was revealed at E3 about what will clearly be a big seller and something you will have to accommodate in new systems or upgrades going forward, but much is still unknown. Confirming the rumors and last year’s sneak preview, Wii U is an optical disc-driven system, though there is a broadband connection for updates, the purchase of games, and access to streaming content. Yes, the video is finally HD (improved from the previous 480p), with output resolution quoted up to 1080p. The Wii U’s video output is finally via HDMI, so this is something integrators will have to take into consideration in systems that are already filled to the max on HDMI inputs. Video is also accessible through an adaptor cable in component, composite, S-video, or RGB.
The demo of Just Dance for Wii U (top) showed how the traditional Wii remotes can be used (here by the dancers) in conjunction with the GamePad, serving todirect the action.
Audio will be six-channel PCM linear via the HDMI output or analog via cables when you are using the adaptor. Beyond that, there simply weren’t any other details available. For example, will there be games with any of the familiar Dolby or DTS audio formats? Will there be optical or coaxial digital outputs? Time will tell. Even such seemingly simple, yet important to custom installer, questions as to whether the power supply will be internal, as is the case with PS3, or external, as is the case with Xbox 360 were met with the same lack of response.
The answer when Wii U will ship was only a vague reference to “holiday 2012.” Further clouding the mystery, it was clear that the Wii U controller pads at the show were all pre-production samples and not using the final tooling for the housing. Add to that, the fact that they carried a type of FCC notice used when a product is shown but not yet approved, and the schedule becomes even more murky. Pricing? Not even a hint on this one. My guess is somewhere between $399 and $499.
Sony’s PS3 Wonderbook will combine an interactive printed book viewed by the PS3 EyeToy along with the Move controllers acting as Magic WandsThis lack of detail should not cloud the, um, game changing potential of Wii U. The new platform will use the same Wii-style IR-based sensor bar and many of the same accessories like the Balance Board. However, what differentiates Wii U from the competition is the Wii U GamePad with its 6.2-inch color LCD touchscreen, dual analog sticks, plus a variety of other game control options, a headphone jack, Near Field Communication, and the ability to operate as a remote control for your TV.
The GamePad is more than a controller. It is not just tied to the game console, but is, in the words of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto “…a part of the game, not just a controller.” Since, as Miyamoto also said, “…the next game cannot be dependent on the TV,” in addition to the obvious use with games on the display, the GamePad may be used to play games when the TV is showing other program material. Players also will be able to use it to play games against each other, with the screen on each player’s GamePad different from the other as part of the strategy for game play. This “asymmetric game play” forms the key of the use of the new console and Game Pad and in many ways we expect it to have as great an impact on the gaming world as the original Wii did when it was first introduced. Note that the Wii U console will handle up to two GamePads at this time.
Of course, there will be support from many of the leading third-party game publishers such as Ubisoft with “ZombiU,” Assassin’s Creed III and Just Dance 4, Warner Bros. Interactive with “Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition and more from THQ, Sega, Namco Bandi Games, and Frozenbyte, among others. First-party games from Nintendo will include new Super Mario Bros, Pikmin, and Wii Fit games specifically tailored for Wii U along with the “Miiverse,” a social networking communication system for Wii U gamers to share experiences with one another.
To cover all bases, Nintendo is working with Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube to bring streaming video services to the new console system along with the social aspect of the Miiverse. However, other than saying that this was part of their broader strategy, this was yet another part of the Wii U picture that still requires further clarification. At this time it is not known which, if any, of these services will be available at launch.
Microsoft’s Dual Agenda: Kinect and Xbox 360
At this year’s E3, Microsoft continued to push a dual agenda with the free-space motion control of Kinect and online streaming services as the core of the Xbox 360 strategy. With Windows 8 looming just over the horizon, and the now announced “Surface” tablet not yet in evidence at E3, questions focused on how the folks from Redmond would extend the capabilities of Kinect and what level of integration there would be when Windows 8 does arrive.
As has been the case at Xbox E3 events, there were answers galore replete with celebrities. Where a few years ago Microsoft brought former Beatles and ex-Beatle wives to the stage, this year’s event featured Usher promoting a new console game. More to the point of music, the former Zune service has now been renamed Xbox Music with 30 million tracks said to be available. Call it Microsoft’s version of iTunes, if you will, and it will be available across the Xbox 360, Windows Phone, and Windows 8 platforms.
On the video side, the use of Xbox as a key part of an over the top (OTT) environment will be enhanced with the addition of a variety of more sports services, such as NHL GameCenter, 24/7 live programming from ESPN and ESPN’s coverage of NFL, MLB, and the NBA, and for basketball fans who subscribe to the NBA. com League Pass, there will be access to out-ofmarket games and League highlights. For those whose sports are more real and personal, a tieup between Nike and Microsoft will appear as “Kinect Training.”
The Wii U Game Pad can be used in a variety of ways, shown here in a Wii I version of Fit, combining information on the GamePad sent from the Balance Board that is different from what is on screen.A large number of content services will be added globally, and for those in the US and Canada that will include AmebaTV, BreakMedia, GameSpotTV, Revision3, while U.S. domestic consumers will be able to view Comedy Central Stand Up, Indie Flix, Nickelodeon, Paramount Movies, SnagFilms, TwitchTV, Univision, and the Weather Channel. New U.S. audio services will include Rhapsody and Slacker Radio, among others.
The biggest news for Xbox is what Microsoft has dubbed “Xbox SmartGlass,” an application for Windows 8, Windows Phone, and “other portable devices” that is meant to more tightly integrate the phone, tablet, PC, game console, and your display. For example, while watching a movie on your tablet or phone you’ll be able to throw it up to the TV, or while watching content on the TV, you’ll be able to view additional meta-data driven content on the phone or tablet. The multi-screen environment of Xbox SmartGlass will also integrate remote control functionality onto the portable device to, in Microsoft’s words “turn any TV into a Smart TV.”
In some respects, SmartGlass will perform the same functionality as the Nintendo GamePad will with Wii U, with the ability to use the portable device as a touchscreen game controller with “swipe, pinch, or zoom” controllability. There will also be ties to games for display of additional content along the lines of what will be available when viewing program content. Keep in mind, however, that while SmartGlass will enable some controller functionality and perhaps enough for the casual gamer, the hard-core gamer requires an additional level of hard tactile controls for which the glass face of a portable device is simply no substitute. Xbox is definitely aiming at the freespace gesturing and voice control of Kinect as its future control system, along with the traditional controller and SmartGlass devices.
Sony’s PlayStation Vita
The third member of the game console trio is Sony, with the PlayStation range headlined by PS3 and portable products now showcased by the Vita.
The biggest question after Sony’s E3 announcement was, “Where was the news?” To be fair, one can say that with cross-platform play using a Vita with a PS3 console is already a reality with a number of titles supporting that capability. Since the Vita is a game with both a screen and hard controls, one might even say that in some regard, Sony has beaten both Nintendo’s Wii U and the GamePad or Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and a phone or tablet running SmartGlass to the punch. With a “cross-goods” feature, you can even go one step further by using content downloaded to the PS3 on both the main console and a Vita, as well as to pick up a game started on the PS3 console and finish it on the Vita.
This is all well and good, but to veteran E3 attendees, it did seem a bit odd that there was none of the usual recitation of sales figures we’re accustomed to at Sony events. Also peculiar was absolutely no mention of the unit’s ability to play Blu ray discs or any 3D content. Perhaps Sony believes that is now common place, but just a bit different than typical. Anyone expecting new hardware introductions had definitely come to the wrong event. Similarly, there were no announcements of new content deals, and also especially for a gaming company whose parent company owns a movie studio, there were no celebrities on stage.
However, at a show where cross-platform integration seemed to be a major theme, it is worth noting that Sony announced that cell phone manufacturer HTC is now part of the “PlayStation Certified” program. As such, they are the first non- Sony company to do so and that means that you can look for this as a major differentiation point for HTC’s Android phones this year. At the same time, the PlayStation Suite program has been renamed “PlayStation Mobile,” perhaps reflecting the importance of smartphones and tablets in the totality of the gaming ecosystem.
One interesting addition on the game title side was the preview of the first “Wonderbook” title where the Playstation Move controllers are used in conjunction with a printed book, the Move, and EyeToy camera, and, of course, the PS3 console. The first of the games is “Wonderbook: World of Spells,” developed in collaboration with J.K Rowling as part of Sony’s partnership with her Pottermore website. In the game, available in November, players will read the book, follow the action on screen, and use the Move controllers as “magic wands” to cast spells and become involved in other game play activities. The concept was interesting, and it leads us to mention that anyone anticipating it for a game room or grand home theater arrange the camera and room space so that the players may gather around the interactive book while still having a view of the display and be in range of the camera.
As one Sony exec said during the presentation, Move is “additive, not all or nothing,” perhaps in comparison to the centrality of Kinect and the GamePad to their respective console platforms. After all, when you realize that there are still PS2 and PSOne units on sale, PS3 has a great deal of life in it, and with the on-board Blu ray player, it continues to represent a very unique proposition.
Despite the absence of hard price and availability information, it is clear that Wii U will be a soughtafter product during the holiday selling season. Anyone considering a project bid where games are even a remote possibily would be wise to reserve a few systems with a friendly retailer, as well as to make certain that “one more” HDMI input is available for the AVR, processor, or video display than you might otherwise have provisioned.
At the same time, don’t count Xbox 360 or PS3 out of the picture either.
At the end of the day, it’s been clear that console games should be an integral part of any system you install. With all the changes we’ve seen, that is the one thing that is a constant now, more than ever.
Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is contributing editor to Residential Systems in Sherman Oaks, CA.